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Turnpikes Past and present.

In a press notice of Turnpikes of New England, its writer quotes ‘rare Ben Johnson’ as saying:
I turn up my axle like a turnpike.

Having in his boyhood journeyed over the Medford turnpike and been held up thereon, not by highwaymen but by ‘toll-gatherer,’ until the requisite coin was produced, the present writer can claim a slight acquaintance. But as ‘rare Ben Johnson’ lived and flourished in the sixteenth century, there is no one in Medford who knew him personally, or saw him turn up his axle. Ask any of the older people in Medford what was or is a turnpike and the reply will be, ‘Why, it was Mystic avenue;’ or, ‘It is a road on which a toll is paid for the privilege of traveling thereon.’ But how did Ben Johnson turn up his axle (whatever that was) to make it resemble Mystic avenue or any other toll road?

Upon consulting the dictionary, a great help in trouble, we find its definition of turnpike to be:

Ordinary Language. (1.) A frame, consisting of two bars crossing at right angles, and turning on a pin or post placed on a road or footpath to hinder the passage of beasts, but admitting a person to pass between the arms. (2.) A turnstile.

This was supported by a quotation:

I move upon my axle like a turnpike. Ben Johnson, Staple of News, III

Further search in our Public Library (by the ready courtesy of one of the staff) shows that Ben Johnson didn't turn up his axle. Rather, he dug into ancient mythology, and made one of his characters (Picklock by name) to say: [p. 16]

Tut, I am Vertumnus. On every change, or chance, upon occasion a true chamelion; I can colour for it,

I move upon my axle like a turnpike,

Fit my face to the parties, and become straight one of them.

Neither did the said (aptly named) Vertumnus ‘turn up’ his axle, or turn up on it, but moved (or turned) upon it. He was a sort of all things to all men and everything to everybody. It is evident that ‘rare Ben Johnson’ was misquoted in the recent press notice, otherwise an excellent one.

The ‘Medford Turnpike Corporation’ (like all others) by its charter was authorized to set up and maintain ‘a turnpike gate or gates.’ Old residents cannot remember any such as above described, and there is nothing in the ‘Act’ that speaks of toll on pedestrians. They tell of the toll-gate as a bar or pole, hung at one end and swinging horizontally across the road. Other roads were barred by a pole raised to a vertical position while teams passed by. Out of this latter form has been evolved (since 1870), the universally adopted gate now in use at railway grade crossings.

Referring to our dictionary definition, some may ask the difference between turnpike and turnstile: A pike was a weapon of ancient time, cruder and blunter than a spear, yet pick-ed, peak-ed, or piked at its ‘business end.’ So in a turn-pike, the ends of the wooden bars were cut on an angle, i.e., pick-ed. When more consideration was shown for the comfort and safety of the passers, the ends of the bars were left square, or rounded somewhat, and such arrangement came to be known as a turn-stile.

Doubtless there were others of this latter in Medford, but the only one the present writer recalls was on High street, at present Kilgore avenue, in 1870 and later. The city of Charlestown had an easement right, through the Brooks estate to its dam at the partings of Medford pond. At that time there was a wall of Medford granite the entire distance from the railroad to Wear bridge, only broken by Grove street, the ‘Delta’ and the farm gates. [p. 17] One of these was over the water works conduit,1 and beside it was a turnstile of two-inch plank. On a pleasant Sunday afternoon the writer made his first visit to the Mystic dam, in company with several gentlemen, one of whom, rather portly, found it a ‘close squeeze,’ as he said, to get through.

But the real turnpike did not pass away when the toll or turnpike roads became free. It continues in use, very much in evidence, today. The first railroad chartered in Massachusetts had provision for toll-gates at intervals, evidently with the thought that private individuals might operate their own cars on its railed roadbed. It erected gates at its only grade crossing in Medford, at High street, and its station or ‘depot’ there was known as ‘Medford Gates.’ These were for public protection,2 and not toll-gates. Instead of a number of ‘tollgath-erers’ along the line, there is but one, and he accompanies the train, comes around at intervals and collects our toll. He is called by the pleasanter sounding name of ‘conductor,’ but we pay the toll just the same. The railway terminals have sliding pike gates, through which patrons pass easily, but have been on some occasions obliged to show tickets before passing.

But reserved for later years and the Boston Elevated and Terminal service was and is the real genuine turnpike, elaborated in various forms. Unlike the old stile that turned both ways, one more like a turnstile moves inward. To enter, one has to ‘fit face to the party,’ walk up to the pagoda where sits enthroned the goddess of the gate, deposit a dime in her treasure chest, and wait her pleasure in pressing her dainty foot on the lever that unlocks the gate and allows your ingress. Even then your troubles are not over. Perchance you wait for a time, but you insinuate yourself into a crowded car, jammed in by the crowd behind you, or perhaps pushed in by the attending guard as the rubber shod push-pike (styled the door) closes behind you, and cautions you not to lean against it. [p. 18]

Beside the entrance turnstile is the exit to the outer world, and this is the real thing. A veritable turnpike, taller than you, with three dozen pikes (smooth, to be sure) set at right angles from a tall post, turns outward and lets you depart, only later to renew your experience.

But Ben Johnson's turnpike had no escalator. Uncle Sam has a modification of the turnpike at the Boston post office entrances, in the form of revolving doors, and so do the great department stores. At these there is no toll taken on going in; generally we spend more or less before coming out. But in all cases, whether steam or electric railroad, post office, or department store, we are supposed to get our money's worth. The patrons of the Medford turnpike did, but we fear the investing proprietors, or rather their successors, thought otherwise at last.

The turnpike or toll roads are gone, the real turnpikes are still with us.

1 See register, Vol. XX, p. 1.

2 See register, Vol. VIII, p. 86, Vol. XVII, p. 88.

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